I've spent years urging developers to take a chance on downtown Little Rock. The success of Arkansas' largest city is necessary if this state is to achieve its potential. Arkansans in all 75 counties should be interested in what happens in the capital city.
One developer who's taking that chance doesn't come from Arkansas. He's instead from Albany in south Georgia.
I was last in Albany in 1996 when I served as this newspaper's political editor. Photographer John Sykes and I spent a week taking U.S. 82 from the Arkansas-Texas border at Texarkana to where the highway ends on the Atlantic coast at Brunswick. We talked to people along the way in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. We then produced a series on the political pulse of the South when President Bill Clinton was running for re-election.
We had dinner with a state senator at a Greek restaurant called Olympic Flame (the Olympics were in Atlanta that year). If we met Pace Burt, I don't remember it.
Burt hopes to transform the former Veterans Administration hospital on Little Rock's Roosevelt Road into a 160-unit apartment project that will bring additional residents downtown. He purchased the structure, largely empty since 1985, for $2.7 million.
"It's a big project," Burt told Arkansas Business. "But we do it all the time. I love seeing these things transformed. ... If it had been a big box, I wouldn't have been interested. The VA hospital has that art deco, George Jetson thing going on with it. We want to go back to that early feel of the 1950s when it was developed. We hope to uncover more of that as we peel back the layers of past renovations.
"We want to ... create the original look. That will really resonate with people interested in living there. We only have 160 units planned, which will mean larger-than-average apartments. The two-bedroom units will be about 2,000 square feet, and the one-bedroom units will be more than 1,000 square feet. There will be nice greenspace with outdoor amenities such as a pool and dog park."
A 2013 feature on Burt in the Albany Herald noted that he keeps a framed rejection letter in his office.
"The letter, signed by then-First State Bank officer Jeff Sinyard ... , rejected Burt's request for financial backing," Carlton Fletcher wrote. "... It notes Burt's 'lack of experience' and 'too many potential projects' as reasons for the rejection.
"Burt eventually found another financial institution to back his--and the only person willing to partner with him, his father, noted attorney Hilliard P. Burt--efforts to develop the Pinnacle West apartment complex in west Albany. And what might have been just another in a long line of disappointments helped turn a young developer so long dismissed as a 'trust-fund playboy' into one of Albany's most successful young businessmen."
"Business is all about timing," Burt told Fletcher. "Who knows? If I hadn't seen that abandoned complex while on a trip to the beach, I might not be here today. If the bank in Texas that was financing the complex had insisted on getting $3 million instead of dumping it for $1 million, I never would have made the deal. Timing."
Burt has also purchased the almost 315,000-square-foot AT&T Building on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. He paid $2 million for the 10-story structure and plans to turn it into apartments. Getting full-time residents into that building--along with Parth Patel's ongoing renovation of the former Sam Peck Hotel--is key to the revitalization of Capitol Avenue near the state Capitol.
"I was so impressed with Capitol Avenue when I drove up it, and I saw the AT&T Building was coming up at auction," Burt told Arkansas Business. "Our first focus is the VA hospital. We have plans for the AT&T Building--120 units. We have to make sure we can get the VA up and running first."
Fletcher wrote in that 2013 feature story: "Burt wasn't supposed to be a developer. From an early age, he was groomed to carry on the legacy his father forged as one of southwest Georgia's most respected and successful attorneys. But life has a way of changing even the most well-intentioned plans. ... Burt's entrepreneurial career started early: a grass-cutting business at 10, pump-jockey at a Texaco station for a couple of years, grocery bagger at Harvey's supermarket a couple more, construction work as he became a teenager."
"It became obvious early that school was not my bag and a career as an attorney was not in the cards," Burt told Fletcher. "My dad did me the biggest favor I could ever hope for. He bestowed a work ethic on me that eventually made me who I am. If I wasn't involved in sports--weekends, summer vacations, holidays--I worked."
Burt's father was part owner of a fertilizer company that loaded sand. "I'm such an overprotective father to my three daughters," he said, "it's hard to imagine that my dad used to drop me off at the plant every day in the summer with a peanut butter sandwich and a can of Vienna sausages, and I'd shovel sand all day. OSHA actually shut that plant down because of safety issues, but I learned valuable lessons there."
After two hard-partying years at Valdosta State University in Georgia, Burt moved to Jacksonville, Fla.
"Those were some tough times," he said. "There were times when I would spend my entire paycheck by Tuesday of the next week and have to choose between getting a room to have somewhere to sleep or just sleeping in my Jeep."
Success came. Now Burt is going where so many other developers have feared to tread--renewing existing structures in downtown Little Rock.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.